Our Lady’s First Apparition

Strange, how the seeds of doubt are sown. I read a blog post by someone who touts himself as a traditional Catholic. The author made an observation. Earlier in Church art, images of Our Lady always include Our Lord. Think of the icons of the East, where Our Lady typically holds the Christ Child. Think of Romanesque and Gothic statues of Our Lady seated, with the Christ Child on her lap. The author contrasted this artistic tradition with Neo-Gothic statues of the modern era, which often show Our Lady standing alone, her arms outstretched. This pose is often associated with Our Lady of Lourdes or Our Lady of Fatima.

The author was implying that this artistic convention is un-traditional and divorces Our Lady from Our Lord. It makes her an independent force or mediator, separate from Our Lord, making the Protestant allegation of Mariolatry seem true. This thought now occurs to me when I see statues of Our Lady absent a representation of the Christ Child. It occurs to me when I venerate Our Lady at the Lady Altar in a local church, where the statue shows Our Lady in the pose described above. It’s a wicked thought, but it takes some insight to redress. For me, the insight was slow in coming. It came one day when praying the Rosary, specifically the mystery of the Visitation.

Remember the context of the Visitation. St. Gabriel the Archangel has recently appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary and announced the Incarnation of Our Lord. Our Lady has given her fiat, and she now bears the Lord within her. She goes to attend to her kinswoman St. Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant with St. John the Baptist. Our Lady greets St. Elizabeth.

Filled with the Holy Ghost, St. Elizabeth bursts forth:

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.” (The Holy Gospel according to St. Luke, 1:42-45)

Cue the Magnificat. Notice something interesting. Our Lord is invisible here. St. Elizabeth sees only her kinswoman Mary, who is in her first trimester of pregnancy. I don’t know that there would have been any indication (by way of clothing?) that Our Lady was with Child. I rather doubt it. Seeing Our Lady apparently alone, St. Elizabeth receives the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and recognizes Our Lord’s Mother, the God-Bearer (Theotokos). Just as St. Bernadette and the children of Fatima saw what *looks* like a woman, separate and individual, but they knew her to be the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, united most closely with her Divine Son. Just as we Catholics, when we see a statue of Our Lady, with or without a representation of the Christ Child, know that Our Lady is Our Lady only because she brings us Our Lord, just as she did to St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist.

I return to the blog post I mentioned above. Can you imagine the author upbraiding St. Elizabeth: “I’m sorry, it’s too early to venerate Our Lady. You have to wait until Our Lord is born so you can see Him in the flesh. Right now, by venerating Our Lady when only she is visible to your senses, you’re setting a bad precedent for religious artwork in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.”

Let me put it another way. Protestants picture Our Lord coming as an individual to each soul. Each soul gets its own personal (i.e. private) savior. Our Lord in this schema is like some Methodist circuit preacher visiting frontier homesteads in 19th-century America, a lone rider on a lone horse. But is there any evidence that Our Lord actually operated that way? The very first time He redeemed a soul*, the very first time He released a soul (St. John’s) from sin, He did so from the womb of His Mother. To accomplish this, the Blessed Mother had to bear Christ in her womb all the way from Nazareth to Judea, to St. Elizabeth’s home. It was Our Lady who saluted St. Elizabeth; Our Lord Himself was silent. No one saw Our Lord that day; they saw only Our Lady. The grace of Our Lord, the Mediator between God and man, was mediated through the service of Our Lady to St. Elizabeth.

And, in this first premonition of Our Lord’s later ministry, how does St. Elizabeth react? With words that sound like St. Bernadette or the Fatima seers responding to a Marian apparition: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Understanding the Visitation would, I think, help Protestants understand and appreciate the reality and significance of Marian apparitions. Our Lady appears and gives messages — of penance, of hope, of love, of mercy, etc. Often she appears, and Our Lord does not. Protestants object to this apparent “focus on Mary,” which superficially seems “un-Scriptural.” But all of her words are directed toward service to her Son, just as she told the servants at the wedding of Cana, “Do whatever He tells you.” We should not be surprised by these apparitions, which take place now, after Our Lady’s Dormition and Assumption. Why? Because in the Gospel narrative of the Visitation we see Our Lady appear (in her earthly life) to St. Elizabeth, bringing with her the saving grace of her Son (St. John is cleansed of original sin) and a message of penance, of hope, of love, of mercy, etc. (the Magnificat).

These observations bear on ecclesiology, as any thoughts on the Mother of the Church must. Our Lord is the perfect Head of the Church, and Our Lady is the perfect member of the Church. She alone perfectly models Our Lord and fulfills the mission of what it is to be a Christian. Our Lord sets her as the example, again in St. Luke’s Gospel (8:21): “My mother and my brethren are they who hear the word of God, and do it.” At the Visitation, Our Lord worked through the ministry of Our Lady to her kinswoman St. Elizabeth. If Our Lady had not gone to serve St. Elizabeth in her need, Our Lord would not have imparted the good news (gospel) of His coming to St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist. So too with the Church: the grace won by Our Lord, the one Mediator and Head of the Church, is in turn mediated to men through His Church, which is Christ’s Body. If we have the gifts of the Holy Ghost as St. Elizabeth did, we see that the Church is no more separate from and independent of Our Lord than Our Lady is. Rather, the Church is like Our Lady at the Visitation, the conduit of Christ’s grace — through the sacraments, the preaching of the Gospel, the ministry of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, etc. Another point for Protestants to ponder — and act on, by converting.

Lastly, these thoughts challenge each of us. We must act as Our Lady did. We must act in such a way that those with eyes to see look upon us and see Christ in us. We must also act like St. Elizabeth, attentive to the prophetic Spirit within us, and giving testimony to the life of Christ when we see it in others. Sometimes we are Mary, bearing Christ to others, and sometimes we are Elizabeth, receiving Christ through others. This is what it means to be the Church. This is what it means to be Christians.

*Meaning, the very first time He did this after His Incarnation, when personally present in the flesh. Christ redeemed and justified souls before this, most notably when He preserved Our Lady from original sin at the moment of her Immaculate Conception. However, He was not yet incarnate.

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